WEST GLACIER – Obviously, it’s not the busiest time of year at Glacier National Park, which closed Tuesday.
But tens of thousands of people still usually visit Glacier every October – part of an average of 750,000 people who normally enter America’s national parks every day during the shoulder month.
The effect of park closures on businesses that rely on that tourist trade was hammered home during a telephone news conference held Tuesday by the National Parks Conservation Association.
Glacier, and the other 400 national parks in the United States, put up the “closed” sign when bickering political parties in Congress were unable to reach an agreement to fund the federal government as they argue over the already enacted Obamacare.
“It’s really sad, and irresponsible, that the world’s richest nation cannot protect its greatest assets,” Phil Francis, former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said. “It’s disheartening to me to see this on top of so many budget cuts. It’s like closing a shopping mall at Christmastime. This is a time businesses near national parks either make it for the year, or don’t.”
That’s truer for some than others. Fall is a big draw in national parks and monuments such as Acadia and Great Smoky Mountains (for the foliage), Grand Canyon and Death Valley (for the cooler weather) and Civil War sites (which get busloads of students).
Christopher Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce near Acadia National Park in Maine, said Acadia usually draws 300,000 visitors during the month of October, five to six times what Glacier normally sees.
The sequestration imposed by Congress this spring, followed by the partial federal government shutdown this fall, will take their toll on the local economy, according to Fogg.
“It’s been a particularly difficult year in Bar Harbor,” Fogg said. “We had to keep the park loop road closed from April into May (because of sequestration), and business was down 30 percent. Now this. It’s a beautiful day here today, we have two cruise ships in, and the park is closed. It means jobs and less income for working families.”
Bill Berg, president of the Greater Gardiner Community Council just outside Yellowstone National Park, called the shutdown “a flaky situation” where park concessionaires have to decide whether to retain their workforce without having any idea how long Congress will refuse to reach a solution.
“It’s bad for visitors, bad for locals, bad for employers and bad for business,” Berg said of the park closure. “For concessionaires, it’s especially tricky. This is a busy time of the season for some of them.”
Theresa Pierno, acting president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said her organization had estimated the cost to communities located near national parks at $30 million per day – or about $75,000 a day per national park.
In Montana, the closures include Glacier and Yellowstone parks, the National Bison Range, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and Big Hole National Battlefield, the Grant Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, interpretive centers at Fort Peck, Pompey’s Pillar and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, plus campgrounds and recreation sites on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock decried the shutdowns.
“We can have legitimate differences over public policy,” Bullock said, “but it’s embarrassing that the greatest country in the world would shut down our government based on nothing more than political brinkmanship.”
The Montana Office of Tourism said it would work to “direct our visitors to Montana’s more off-the-beaten path experiences, locales and charming and inviting towns” in the wake of the closure of the two national parks that drive the state’s tourism economy.